As seen in our very first Pulp Spotlight, we enjoy a good Conan story. In today’s Pulp Spotlight is Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian Barbarian: The Complete Weird Tales Omnibus, compiled and edited by
As seen in our very first Pulp Spotlight, we enjoy a good Conan story. In today’s Pulp Spotlight is Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian Barbarian: The Complete Weird Tales Omnibus, compiled and edited by Finn J.D. John.
Reading these stories, I realized Robert E. Howard deserves more credit than he receives for creating his richly detailed Hyperborean Age. Like Tolkien’s Middle-earth, it’s set in the prehistory of our world. Howard even beat Tolkien to the punch, publishing his fantasy world before Tolkien. Additionally, while Tolkien’s world is almost exclusively a fictional history of England, only lightly touching on other cultures, Howard’s world is filled with many different types of societies, drawn from many different ethnicities.
Despite these positives, the Conan stories too often rely on the same formula. There’s little variation as Conan enters a conflict, deals with the conflict, and then absconds with a scantily clad lass in nearly every story. Howard also seemed to make gorillas, or some variation of gorillas, the primary antagonist in every other yarn. The standout tales are the ones where Howard deviates from this formula, Tower of the Elephant, The People of the Black Circle, Shadows in Zamboula, Queen of the Black Coast, and Beyond the Black River.
If you are only casually interested in Conan, I’d suggest The Hour of the Dragon, which is a Conan tale Robert E. Howard intended as a novel. Sadly, the company that agreed to publish it folded before the novel came to be, so the story was published in Weird Tales. The Hour of the Dragon includes all the best elements of Conan in one story and culminates in a truly pulse-pounding climax. Howard also manages to present his female characters as more then objects to be won in this tale.
The writer’s portrayal of women was probably my biggest problem with his Conan stories. While I know part of the issue lies with editors at Weird Tales pushing for more sex appeal to sell magazines, the presentation of the female characters holds many of these tales back from being timeless. There are a few standout ladies, but the majority were clichéd damsels in distress. Still, these tales are from a different time and can’t be fully measured by today’s standards.
Conan the Cimmerian Barbarian is an excellent collection of Howard’s Conan epics. Finn J.D. John includes introductions to each story with interesting tidbits and biographical information. The omnibus also includes Howard’s essay detailing the Hyperborean age and two pre-Conan stories that influenced the creation of the character. Red Shadows, a tale about the character Soloman Kane, is particularly interesting, and some people claim it to be the first Sword and Sorcery tale ever published. If you write or read fantasy, I’d recommend reading some Howard to take in one of the founding fathers of the genre.
One thought on “Conan’s Weird Tales”
Howard learned to write by reading what other pulp successful writers wrote. It is not surprising that there appears to be some formulaic writing, but you have not pointed out that the whole pulp period revolved around formula, in all genres. I think Howard strove to be different and remove formula for the most part. You need to allow yourself to be drawn in totally to the story and let it wrap its tendrils around your mind, then you don’t notice any formula. If you spend too much time trying to analyze Howard as you read you are working against his ability to draw you into the story.
Regarding Finn J D John’s excellent tomb, you neglect to mention that these were as published in Weird Tales but do not include all Conan tales. There were 3 that were not published but he does include The Frost Giant’s Daughter which was only in draft form. As I’m currently doing a textual study of this tale I have not determined which draft he used. Regardless, I consider it one of the better texts available as I consider the Weird Tale’s texts as canonical as they were the first publication of most of his Conan, Kull and Solomon Kane stories.